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It Takes a Calf

April 20, 2015

Cows make milk. People drink milk. It seems simple. But the complicated process of getting the milk from the cow to your morning bowl of cereal may involve more than is initially obvious, especially to a modern consumer.

Cattle and Hank in 1900 dry lot Like any mammal, cows produce milk to feed their young. In modern food culture, consumers may tend to overlook the role calves play in the dairy industry. But, without yearly calves, cows won’t continue to produce milk. Milk production naturally tapers off around 10 months, and won’t start up again until the cow has another calf. Since it takes a calf, today we will look at how we manage our dairy cattle and their calves at Living History Farms.

In most modern commercial dairy operations, calves are separated (weaned) from their mothers almost immediately after birth, just as they have been in many commercial dairy operations for over 100 years. The calf-less cow is then milked twice a day and the farmer feeds the calves a measured amount of milk or milk replacer on a regular schedule.

Since Living History Farms isn’t in the commercial dairying business, we manage our cows a little differently. Depending on when you visit, two scenarios are possible. You may see a calf resting in the barn or tied in the shade while the mother cow grazes in a pasture nearby. Or, you may see a calf in the pasture with its dam (mother cow) suckling away. Hank

Both of these scenarios happen daily because we manage our dairy cows the way a family farm in 1850 or 1900 would have managed their dairy cows, not the way a modern (or even historic) commercial dairy manages their herd. Remember, it takes a calf to get milk production started. The cows we raise are capable of producing 5 gallons of milk or more every day – far more than a farm family would be able to consume. So what do we do?

We make a bit of a compromise with our dairy cows and calves, called partial weaning. As one dairy management book (Dairy Cattle Feeding and Management) from 1917 put it, “calves are frequently with the dam for some time, the herdsman himself doing a part of the milking and allowing the calf to do the rest.” After morning chores are finished, we bring the cow and her calf to the milking parlor.

Hank and Lilly in milking parlor

cow uddersWe tie the cow up or put her in the stanchions and milk her until all four quarters (each teat is attached to its own separate “quarter”) are empty of milk. The cow goes back to the pasture while the calf stays in the milking parlor, where the youngster has shade and water available. Milking the cow completely out in the morning stimulates her body to produce more milk over the course of the day.

When it’s time for afternoon chores and the second milking, we bring the cow back to the milking parlor and milk her again. This time, we will only milk her 50-75% out before returning both the cow and calf to the pasture. Only taking a portion of the milk the cow has made during the day ensures there will be something for the calf to eat right away when we return the calf to the cow. The calf then stays with the cow overnight where it can drink as much milk as it pleases, and the cycle begins again the next morning.

Through partial weaning, the calf is able to drink as much milk as it needs daily to be healthy and strong. The human partners in the compromise also get 1-3 gallons of milk a day, which is still more than enough milk for a single family.

Even if we manage our cows here at the museum differently than commercial dairies do today, it still takes a calf! The 1900 Farm’s milk cow, Lily, gave us this lovely little bull calf on March 5. Be sure to stop out and say hello to Lily and her calf when the museum opens May 1!

–Farmer Kelly, Manager at the 1900 Horse-Powered Farm


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